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Springfield business leaders discuss future growth

NORTH SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross told the annual meeting of the Springfield Regional Development Corp. on Wednesday that never before have agriculture and traditional business interests been so connected.

Ross spoke at Black River Meats, one of Springfield’s and the state’s big success stories. Ross said Black River Meats and its sister company, Black River Produce, were bringing business to Vermont farmers and the food network.

Ross, former state director for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that providing food to a projected 9 billion people in 2050 is a daunting task for agriculture all over the world.

Ross spoke in the back portion of Black River Meats, which is located in the former Ben & Jerry’s plant. Since it had been sold to Ellsworth Ice Cream, the building had fallen into disuse and became the property of the town of Springfield via tax sale. It was the town that sold the disused and partially collapsed building to Black River Meats last year.

Since then, Black River has pumped $3.8 million into the building and established it as the company’s center for handling meats and seafood, said Sean Buchanan, business development manager for the company.

Buchanan said when he first saw the old Ben & Jerry’s plant with Mark Curran, one of the owners of Black River Produce, Curran called it “a diamond in the rough.”

Buchanan confessed to the Springfield regional business leaders that all he saw was “rough.”

Buchanan said that Black River had started 10 years ago trying to figure out how to produce and provide high quality, professional grade meat, after years of being known for its quality fruits and vegetables. And since Black River has started offering meat, in addition to seafood and fresh produce, demand and growth has been very strong.

Black River current buys from 150 Vermont growers.

Black River Meats hopes to add a state-of-the-art slaughterhouse and animal handling facility within the year.

Bob Flint, executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corp., said that the nonprofit development group was working hard to keep existing businesses in the region, and help them expand.

He cited two companies, Artisan Surfaces in Springfield, and Drew’s in Chester, as companies that almost went out of business, but stayed through creative deals and work with state agencies.

Flint said the redevelopment of the Jones & Lamson Machine Tool Co. in Springfield continued to occupy time and money, but he said a state enforcement action against Bradford Oil, whose former gas station is leaking pollution to the already-polluted J&L site was holding up significant progress.

“It’s an extremely frustrating situation,” Flint said.

SRDC spent $400,000 this summer, a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, on cleaning up some of the worst original contamination at J&L.

And he said that the regional development group was working to help local businesses and farms still hard hit by Tropical Storm Irene.

Paul Kowalski, a grant manager of the Irene program, said that the $1 million grant was only 1/6 percent of the “unmet needs” of local businesses and farms. But he said another $500,000 grant was on the way, which would be awarded to Irene damaged businesses.

Springfield, he said, managed to escape the wrath of Irene because of the North Springfield U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Flood Control Dam.

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